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On the Offensive

Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page D02

If someone cuts into line, even if it is a bunched-up line without a clearly defined track, others in line assume the intention is to cheat and do not hesitate to voice their indignation. One person knocking against another in a crowd is apt to provoke an angry response even after an apology is offered. Even politeness can provoke a bristling reaction, as when deference shown to age is taken as a slur.

So why is it that the most blatant and direct insults so often meet with tepid confusion?

Miss Manners has no desire to bring back the duel. She warmly approves of the restraint that is shown when someone lets a slight go by out of a sympathetic understanding of the psychological state of the offender. And she certainly does not countenance returning rudeness with rudeness.

But she is amazed when people allow themselves to be insulted with impunity. It is not as though they fail to notice or mind. They seem to be uncertain that they are right to take offense, so they do little or nothing.

Some cases in point:

"I have a relative who is very into health and dieting," writes a Gentle Reader who was "always able to keep up with her during athletic endeavors until the past year, when I have been recovering from an illness. I have been unable to exercise much and I am now very overweight, although I'm working very hard to lose the extra pounds. She would like me to come see her, but during a previous visit, she greeted me at the door, looked me up and down, curled her lip when her gaze fell on my Rubenesque hips, turned on her heel and refused to speak to me for the rest of the day."

Another Gentle Reader reports that he was "about to relate a story at a recent dinner party, when the friend to my left blurted out, 'Does this have an end anytime soon?' " He does not expect an apology, he said, although even the offender's escort suggested one was necessary, "but I'm still miffed."

A Gentle Reader who was shopping for curtains was mimicked by a saleswoman whose suggestion she declined. "The saleswoman then comically mocked what she presumed to be my thoughts, saying in a deep voice: 'Oh, I don't want to have anything to do with that stupid idea!' "

All of these people report having been understandably shocked into silence. What they could have said at the time was a harsh "I beg your pardon!" or, in extreme cases, "How dare you!" What should follow is a refusal to deal with that person short of an acceptable apology.

Even on reflection, Miss Manners's Gentle Readers doubt the legitimacy of their own hurt. The lady whose relative snubbed her because of her weight writes that she "would like to delay seeing her until I look better," the gentleman whose story was cut short is wondering whether he can be cold to the offender or "should I get over it and act as if nothing happened?" and the mocked shopper merely withheld the expected contradiction.

Hardly the one to argue for harsh behavior, Miss Manners simply believes that the effort to cause deliberate and dramatic offense should be clearly registered as offensive. Even the most forgiving victims owe it to the rest of society to make it clear that such behavior is intolerable.

Dear Miss Manners:

Could you kindly answer how one properly eats a baked apple? Is it cut with fork and knife or with spoon?

A properly baked apple is so ready to surrender that Miss Manners would consider attacking it with a knife to be cruel use of excessive force.

The standard implements for dessert, a fork and spoon, are exactly what you need, as the side of the fork easily cuts the weakened skin of the apple and the spoon deals with the squishy part. At least these implements are supposed to be standard. Miss Manners will overlook the substitution of a salad fork for a dessert fork, provided you do not try to pass off a teaspoon as a dessert spoon. Where that habit came from she cannot imagine, but a dessert spoon must be larger, and the only passable substitution would be an oval soup spoon.

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) at MissManners@unitedmedia.com or mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

© 2005, Judith Martin

© 2005 The Washington Post Company